7 Questions That We Should Keep Asking

What does success look like if person centered thinking skills are being effectively used throughout an organization? For one thing, we would hear people saying that they have a direct role in making decisions about the direction of their lives. They would also be able to say that their lives feel like it is in their control and not coerced or directed by service or program incentives. That control may be negotiated at times, but successful negotiation always has the characteristics of shared power and respect. Just as importantly, success will involve the people who are connected to the person understanding that person centered approaches require continuous learning and curiosity about the person and their unique experience and perspectives. Try walking through these seven questions as you think about the person who you believe is being supported in a person centered way.

What is important to the person? This includes the people who they are connected to as well as when and how they spend time together. In some cases, it may be the case that some of those people were more present in a previous period of their lives and there is a desire to reconnect. Important interests, passions or hobbies need to be explored or uncovered. Sometimes there are objects or possessions that hold great symbolic value in terms of the memories they invoke or traditions they are linked with. Everyone is also unique in how they respond to the bumps and bruises in life and recover from them. That process of soothing or getting back to center is important to every person. We should also know how the cycle or rhythm of each day, week, season or holiday is experienced. Some of these elements link us to larger social groups and denote status or identity.

What is important for the person? Health and safety interests or concerns are different for all of us. The environment that we live in determines some of this. Information that can be provided by clinicians or health professionals also fall into this category. It may be important for the person to follow certain guidelines around eating or physical activities to either prevent a serious health issue or to improve one that is currently active. You should also have an idea of what the person may be concerned about or if they feel threatened or vulnerable. Connection to other people in the community is closely associated with mental as well as physical health and we should know whether the person feels the need to make adjustments.

Is the connection between important to and for addressed? The topics that we consider in what is important for the person are always familiar. There’s a good reason for that. When we think of our loved ones, our concern for their health and safety always float to the top. It’s hard to argue that point. It’s also familiar because the need to address health and safety always features prominently, if not exclusively, in the regulations that govern service provider agencies. There was a time where this completely dominated the way support services were designed. We need to ask this question as it relates to whether the way that health and safety goals are addressed also take into consideration what is important to the person. We all have our own list of important for. However, we rarely address them unless there is a connection with important to. We finally stick to that diet when we also want to prepare for that vacation or when we have an idea about how it would improve status or how we are viewed by our peers. We pick up an exercise routine when it means we can spend quality time with people that we admire. Things that we do that heighten risks to our safety (for example, things that we consume, and we know are “not good for us”) might be connected to our sense of identity, how we soothe ourselves when stressed or how we experience relaxation. We’ll commit to an alternative if it is linked to something else that is more important to us. Are we exploring this connecting in the conversations about strategy and approach with the people that we support?

Is there a “good” balance between important to and important for? Balance requires keeping both in mind and appreciating the basic human need to live a full life. It isn’t about having a good mix. It’s about the way that we collaborate and negotiate the means by which elements of what is important to the person are realized and also as a present force in committing to ways to address health, safety and relationships. And most importantly, having insight into how this shifts over time for all of us and should therefor be re-examined when ever there is concern that something is happening in a person’s life where the person or someone in the circle of their relationships communicates an imbalance.

What does the person want to learn, what do we need to learn? This question deserves careful consideration with attention to the words “want” and “need”. Both terms point us to the process of discovery. We should be sincere in our curiosity regarding what people want to learn. This may require asking the questions that help uncover other interests. For example, “what is it about learning X that is important to you?” We should also take care in being alert to a tendency for people to tell us what they think that we want to hear. Answering the question will sometimes involve observing behavior instead of words or reaching out to other people who are important to the person. This is all about what we need to learn. Personalized supports happen when we acknowledge that we are the learners and the person that we want to support is the teacher.

What needs to stay the same (be maintained or enhanced)? What needs to change? These questions are likely to get different answers from different people. Skillfully exploring what needs to change and what needs to be maintained entails respectfully asking and acknowledging these different points of view without judgement and negotiating a way forward. This is possible only if there are promises underlying the questions: a promise to listen and a promise to be honest about what is possible.

If you are honest in considering these questions, then you should have some doubt about each of the answers. People who spend their entire lives together as partners can be surprised sometimes. In formal service systems you should be surprised sometimes as well. When you learn Person Centered Thinking skills you have a variety of means at your disposal to always feed information that can help in the discovery. The most important thing is to keep the conversation going.